Farmers in Karnataka have been protesting against the three farm laws passed by the Central government in the monsoon session of Parliament. But there are two differences in their protests compared with those in the rest of the country. First, the protests are not only against the Central government but also against the B. S. Yediyurappa-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the State which, over the past few months, disregarding widespread opposition, promulgated three ordinances that will crucially affect the rights of farmers and workers. Second, farmers’ organisations in the State have the support of Dalit and workers’ organisations, and all three groups are protesting unitedly under a joint forum.
Farmers representing 16 organisations protested between May and July as well, but these protests were scattered and limited as lockdown restrictions were in place because of the COVID pandemic. On May 16, the Karnataka government promulgated the Karnataka Agricultural Produce Marketing (Regulation and Development) (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, removing the provision contained in the 1966 Act that restricted farmers to sell notified agricultural produce only at the APMC yard. Subsequently, the Karnataka Land Reforms (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, was notified on July 14, which repealed rules that sought to restrict ownership of agricultural land only to agriculturists and prohibited the usage of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. This ordinance also raised the land limit that could be held by a family. Industrial workers have been aggrieved by the Industrial Disputes and Certain Other Laws (Karnataka Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, notified on July 31 which, among other controversial changes, allows industrial establishments with up to 300 workers to retrench workers without prior government permission.
Siddharth K. Joshi, a Bengaluru-based independent researcher, said the changes in the land reform laws enacted in BJP-ruled States, including Karnataka, “have to be seen in light of the ‘ease of doing business’ agenda of the Modi government under the guidance of the World Bank.” He added that “permitting companies to enter the land market directly without the mediation of the state signals two big changes. First, existing inequalities in ownership of land are further going to be exacerbated and, second, the removal of the state as a mediator in land transactions has serious implications in terms of the bargaining power of landowning groups when it comes to the acquisition of agricultural land for industrial purposes.” Social anthropologist A.R. Vasavi stated that the recent ordinances were “a reversal of the spirit and gains from the 1974 [Karnataka Land Reforms] Amendment which protected agricultural land from the speculative economy.”
As many as 34 organisations representing farmers, Dalits and workers under the auspices of “Aikyate Horaata” (United Struggle) commenced on September 21 a massive protest centred at Freedom Park in Bengaluru against the “anti-people” laws brought in by the Central and State governments. This protest ended on September 28 when the call for a State-wide bandh by Aikyate Horaata was heeded partially across Karnataka. In Bengaluru, protesting farmers gathered at various locationswithin the city and at crucial entry points on its outskirts, restricting inter-district travel.
Protesters gathered in large numbers at the centrally located Sir Puttanna Chetty Townhall early in the morning of September 28. Farmers donning green shawls, which easily identified them as members of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), formed the largest group of protesters. They were joined by farmers representing the Karnataka Pranta Raitha Sangha. Members of the various factions of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti in Karnataka, wearing blue scarves, too were present in large numbers. Trade unionists from the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and activists of organisations such as the Students Federation of India (SFI) were present along with women working in garmentfactories. The participation of members of Kannada nativist organisations such as the Kannada Rakshana Vedike and Jai Karnataka, who were waving Karnataka flags, bolstered the protest.
Addressing the protesters, Badagalpura Nagendra, president of the KRRS and Hasiru Sene said, “We oppose the amendment to the land reforms, APMC and labour Acts in Karnataka. We also oppose the anti-farmer policies of the Central government. Even if these Bills have got legislative approval, the people of Karnataka and the country will never accept them.”
Standing by the sidelines was Mavalli Shankar, chief convener of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (Ambedkar Vaada), who explained to Frontline why Dalit groups were supporting the protest when the ordinances mainly affected the farming community. “This is a moral issue and it is not restricted to one section of society. This cancer [of BJP] will eat all of us. Today they are targeting farmers but tomorrow the target will be Dalits and then it will be religious minorities. The BJP uses the policy of ‘divide and rule’ and all oppressed sections of society must unite against them. Also, this is an issue that affects Dalits directly as many among them are small and marginal farmers. In Anekal and Devanahalli, I have seen that Dalit farmers who were lured to sell their lands are on the footpath now. Essentially, what we need to understand is that capitalist policies will never be in favour of the poor.”
A few kilometres away, D. K. Shivakumar, president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, both symbolically wearing green scarves around their necks, were addressing a group of around 300 party workers at Congress House about the party’s opposition to the farm laws brought in by the State and Central governments. “Karnataka is the land of land reforms. The Congress will not allow anti-farmer policies here,” Shivakumar said. Even though the Congress is supporting the farmers’ protests in Karnataka now, questions are being asked as to why the party did not oppose the government from May onwards when these ordinances were promulgated in the State.
Plagued by problems
While farmers have been protesting against the move to diminish the salience of the APMCs, it is true that this marketing board, which was meant to protect farmers’ interests, has been plagued by problems. In Karnataka, only 35 per cent of agricultural produce is traded through the 163 operational APMC yards. Overall, only 50 per cent of vegetables and 49 per cent of the cereals produced are traded through APMCs, while the figure is a dismal 4 per cent for fruits. According to agricultural output data from Karnataka, out of the total production of 278.88 lakh tonnes of notified agricultural produce in 2018-19, only 96.96 lakh tonnes was actually traded through APMC yards. This means that farmers are already utilising private markets to sell their produce directly.
T. N. Prakash Kammardi, an agricultural economist and former chairperson of the Karnataka Agricultural Prices Commission, said: “It is not as if the APMCs do not have problems and there is a misunderstanding that the entire agricultural output is traded through APMCs. In Karnataka, only 35 per cent of the agricultural trade passes through the APMCs, which are severely politicised and are controlled by vested interests who illegally collect commission from farmers. There was a dire need to reform APMCs by professionalising their operations, bringing in transparent online trading and ensuring MSP through legal recourse. Instead, it is a shame on the part of the Central government that it is withdrawing from the agricultural domain completely. It is important that these government-controlled democratic structures are reformed rather than abandoned in favour of private players.”
Addressing the issue, A.R. Vasavi said: “It is important to iron out the problems in the APMCs rather than completely destroy the regulatory agency. The alternatives that are suggested don’t have the average farmer in mind. It is important to retain the APMCs as they act as clearing houses and maintain a floor price.”